Reuse and recycle used beer cans and bottles
Reuse and recycle empty beer cans and bottles to rein in the amount of waste entering landfills and lessen the need for the energy-intensive production of new cans and bottles from virgin materials.
How to reuse and recycle used beer cans and bottles
How you recycle your empty beer cans and bottles will depend largely on the recycling programs available where you live. Contact your local government or department of sanitation to find out what recycling facilities are available to you. Some of the most common recycling options include:
- Curbside pick-up programs: If your community is one of the 9,000 nationwide that offers curbside pick-up, you can leave your cans and bottles at the curb with your trash and they will be picked up. Check with local authorities to see if you need to separate cans from glass or sort glass bottles by color before they are picked up curbside. (Programs vary: you may need to sort your recyclables or your community recycling center may do it for you.) Sorting is necessary because, when glass containers of varying colors are inadvertently mixed together, the cullet used to create new glass is considered contaminated and has a lower economic value than cullet containing a single color.
- Drop-off centers: If curbside recycling is not available in your area, seek out a local recycling drop-off center. Check out Earth 911 to find a recycling center near you or contact your local government or department of sanitation regarding specific recycling services and guidelines. Again, you may need to sort your recyclables before drop off.
- Bottle returns: You can take your spent six-packs to a redemption center, or return them directly to a retail store for a deposit refund if you live in a state with a Bottle Bill (also known as a beverage container deposit law).
- Multi-unit dwelling recycling programs: If you live in an apartment building, there may be a designated place for you to take your recyclables in or around the building. If not, be proactive and speak with your building's owner or superintendent about shoring up recycling efforts.
If recycling facilities aren't available in your area, then consider reuse options. If you're a home-brewer, you can reuse glass bottles for a fresh batch. Crafty imbibers who are uncertain what to do with that pesky case of aluminum empties from the Memorial Day barbecue can give them a second life as objects d'art. Tesscar Aluminum Craft offers detailed plans on how to construct your own Guinness grasshopper or Heineken hot air balloon.
Recycling and reusing empty beer cans and bottles helps you go green because…
- They would otherwise end up in landfills where glass takes about 1 million years to break down.
- The amount of energy and resources used to create aluminum cans and glass bottles from recycled materials is less than the amount needed to create cans and bottles from virgin materials. Less energy means less pollution.
Aside from the taste debate (Do cans or bottles make for better-tasting beer?), there are also ecological considerations to ponder. Both aluminum cans and bottles have their environmental benefits and drawbacks. Recycling either beverage container means fewer resources and less energy going into making more bottles and cans, a process made easier by states with Bottle Bill programs in place.
The process of converting bauxite (the source of aluminum that makes up 8 percent of the earth's crust) into aluminum is an energy-consuming one—requiring roughly 7.5 kilowatt hours for each pound of virgin aluminum. Open-cast mining of bauxite leads to deforestation and destruction of ecosystems. On the plus side, aluminum is 100 percent recyclable, and creating new cans from old ones requires only 5 percent of the energy needed to produce virgin aluminum. In the United States, around 35 percent of aluminum products contain recycled aluminum.
Aluminum (including beer and soft drink cans) accounted for 3.2 million tons of waste in 2006; just 0.7 million tons were recovered for recycling. It's estimated that more than 302 million beer cans are used globally each year—that's enough beer cans to wrap around the earth more than 1,050 times if laid end-to-end. The recycling of a single beer can could save enough energy to run a computer for up to three hours.
Like aluminum, glass is also composed of natural resources—sand and limestone—yet its production is simpler and uses less energy than aluminum production. Glass bottles, however, are heavier than lightweight aluminum and are therefore more costly to transport. This means more fossil fuels are consumed and more pollution is generated in transporting them. The recycling of glass is also less efficient—and requires more energy—than the recycling of aluminum. While recycled aluminum cans reenter the market in as few as six weeks, the process takes longer for glass bottles. Creating glass from recycled materials, however, does require 30 percent less energy than creating glass from virgin materials.
According to reports published by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2006, over 13 million tons of glass containers (including beer, juice, soda, and other bottles) were disposed of in the United States; just 2.9 million tons were recovered for recycling. It is estimated that an individual glass bottle, when recycled, saves enough energy to light a 100-watt bulb for four hours.
Bottle bills—deposit-refund systems in place in 11 states—help to extend the life of beverage containers through recycling and reusing. The system is simple: a retailer purchases beverages from a distributor and a deposit is paid for each container. Consumers buy beverages and pay the retailer a deposit (in most states, five cents), then return empty beverage containers to the retailer or a redemption center and the deposit is refunded. The retailer recoups the deposit from the distributor and, in most states with bottle bills, a handling fee of less than three cents. When deposits are left unclaimed, they are either returned to the distributor or become property of the state, where they are often used toward environmental and recycling programs.
Bottle bills have dramatically decreased beverage container litter rates, with seven states claiming reductions of 69 to 84 percent after the implementation of deposit-refund systems. The following states have bottle bills and accept the return of glass beer bottles and aluminum beer cans (with the exception of Delaware, which does not accept aluminum beverage containers of any kind):
- California: More than 24 oz=10¢, less than 24 oz=5¢.
- Connecticut: 5¢.
- Delaware: 5¢.
- Hawaii: 5¢.
- Maine: Wine/liquor 15¢, others, 5¢.
- Massachusetts: 5¢.
- Michigan: 10¢.
- New York: 5¢.
- Oregon: 2¢ for standard refillable, 5¢ for others.
- Vermont: Wine/liquor=15¢, others 5¢.
In 2000, Miller Brewing Co. began selling three of its beers in 16- and 20-ounce recyclable plastic bottles nationwide after test marketing the concept in several American cities. Anheuser-Busch had previously marketed plastic beer bottles on a small scale but halted production due to lack of consumer interest. The idea behind plastic beer bottles is to provide beer drinkers with a user-friendly, aesthetically-comparable alternative to heavy, often awkward glass bottles, which are banned at sporting events, on beaches, and elsewhere. Advocates of plastic beer bottles claim that they are more environmentally sound than their glass counterparts due to their relative lightness and need for less packaging and fuel during transportation. On the other hand, Miller's use of brown plastic disrupts plastic recycling programs and raises recycling costs because it can't be mixed with other plastics.
- cullet: Recycled glass that is crushed and refined at a recovered material facility. It is then sold to glass manufacturers and combined with sand, soda ash, and limestone to create new glass products.
- Beer Activist
- Beer Advocate
- Container Recycling Institute
- New York City's Apartment Building Recycling Initiative to improve recycling in multi-unit dwellings.
- US Environmental Protection Agency - Municipal Solid Waste: Recycling
- Bergen County Utilities - Recycling Facts
- Grist - Ask Umbra: Brew Ado
- US Environmental Protection Agency - Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States: Facts and Figures for 2006
- American Plastics Council - Latest Advance in Consumer Friendly Packaging: Beer in Plastic Bottles? The Idea is Brewing March 1999
- Utah State University Recycling Center - Facts and Figures
- Bottle Bill Resource Guide - Bottle Bills Prevent Litter